There is no question that the UK has become an increasingly secular place in recent decades. While other great European nations appear to have clung to notions of organised faith — the Catholicism of France, Spain and Italy and the reviving Orthodox movement in the former Soviet Union — the indigenous British have broadly spurned spirituality to the point where the nation’s alleged Christian allegiance provides a rather striking example of style over substance.
This is not to say, and I stress, that the country is bereft of religious faith. In multicultural times, the quest for answers and explanations beyond the material world continues, of course. Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and other minority groups practise their beliefs by their hundreds and thousands in cities from London to Glasgow, Liverpool to Leeds, Cardiff to Birmingham, the by-product of a half-century of immigration to these shores, and a reminder of those historic imperial relationships that once stretched across five continents.
For American readers, though, the distaste of most white Britons for traditional worship may come as something of a surprise. By way of contrast, the pull of the Christian church, in all its many denominations, seems to have survived in most of the States via an array of closely-bonded ethnic communities. Over some 200 years, the Irish in Boston and Chicago, the Italians in New York, the Mexicans in California, the Spanish in Florida, the English, Welsh and the Scots in the original states of the Union (to mention only a few) brought versions of the Biblical code with them and displayed a depth of belief that has solidly endured into a new millennium.
Add to that the extraordinary and brutal twist of history that brought millions of Africans to American shores to not only slavery, but also enforced conversion to Christianity and the cynical promise of a better life beyond the penury of the plantation. The States’ association with Christian teachings can be regarded as not only long-standing, but also one charged with a certain controversy.
However, whatever the hypocrisies of the past, it would be a rare American entertainments awards ceremony or sporting contest that didn’t feature the winners crediting the Lord above for their successes. It is nothing unusual for country singers, R&B performers, hip hop stars, American footballers or professional prize fighters to name-check the role of a divine force in their professional ascents. Such deferential nods to the place of heavenly influence are still regarded as something quite natural for both participants and viewers. Yet, if similar British artists repeated those sentiments in the UK, they would be regarded with deep suspicion by their audiences, and almost inevitably prompt public cynicism and media mockery. While the US has had countless frontline personalities happily pin their colours to the cross of Christ, rare British examples — like singer Cliff Richard, once dubbed the English Elvis, and a man who has enjoyed a five decade presence in our charts — have become figures of unrelenting fun rather than reverential respect.
All of which makes the event that occurred in Manchester at Easter an occasion of some remarkable note. The Manchester Passion, staged on Good Friday, was both live presentation and television broadcast, which brought an updated version of Christ’s crucifixion to the contemporary streets of a northern British city. The production was a dramatic work presented to a 6,000 strong crowd gathered in one of the city’s principal locations, Albert Square, but one that was also seen, simultaneously, by a much larger national TV audience as BBC3 relayed the action to living rooms across the UK.
More amazingly, perhaps, this wasn’t just an attempt to re-tell the drama of Christ’s final hours in an urban setting; after all, the Mystery Plays have been attempting such an exercise in cities like York and Chester for centuries. Rather, this was a musical extravaganza which related the story via a series of recent rock songs from Manchester, a city particularly fertile in popular music creativity over the last 30 years. Works by the Smiths and New Order, the Stone Roses and M People, Joy Division and James, Oasis and Robbie Williams, provided the soundtrack, as Christ (played with great distinction by the young actor Darren Morfitt), and his disciples (portrayed by a gang of familiar British actors augmented by Tim Booth, singer with James, as Judas Iscariot), wandered the city’s avenues and brought a timeless tale to new life. A burger van provided bread and wine for the Last Supper, the local police force were re-cast in the role of Roman centurions, and a large crowd of extras carried a dazzling, illuminated white cross aloft, a stunning re-creation of the iconic symbol.
Hosted with decorum by maverick alternative comic Keith Allen, and presented on two stages, replete with live musicians, and a number of huge screens, the show provided a gritty and authentic re-telling, combining the familiar features of the tragedy with settings that potently evoked the spirit of the current urban landscape: the hustle and bustle, action and excitement, rubbing shoulders with shadowy dangers and imminent menace, a film noir evocation of the New Testament’s key episode.
As “Blue Monday” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” were followed by “Sit Down” and “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” (suitably sparse arrangements featuring busked guitar), the drama took on an affecting immediacy as Christ’s ordeal, from betrayal to arrest to execution, was played out. But the production had a stunning and optimistic conclusion as Morfitt was smuggled from the main stage to re-appear hundreds of feet above the crowd, perched on the balcony of the tower of Manchester’s Town Hall, singing a rousing “I Am the Resurrection”.
This coup de theatre ended a memorable evening, and on these Mancunian streets there was a strong sense that 2,000 year old meanings had been invigorated by this latter-day Passion play. Even the TV version, recorded and repeated later that night, managed to convey something of the essence of what had happened, vividly and vigorously, in the flesh. Religion may be last millennium’s thing for all too many in this land, but the power of this ancient parable was enhanced, not diminished, by this bold blend of Biblical tale and home-grown rock’n'roll.
Nor did this bold experiment bring much other than a positive reception for the faithful and sceptics who braved the cool evening air to take in this one-off spectacle. Even the city’s most senior churchman, the Bishop of Manchester, Nigel McCulloch, condoned the celebration, telling the BBC’s website that The Manchester Passion had “a sincerity and an ability to shock and connect that is not far removed from how it must have been on the first Good Friday”; (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/manchester/4908894.stm). And, as a witness to this hour-long street show, I must concur that the spirit of an ancient text was certainly re-kindled amid the hi-tech architecture and shimmering neon of an April night.